Liberty, Prudence, Imperfection, and Law

Leviathan: II.XXIX

“The Tower of Babel,” by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna.


Why do states decline and fall? This is a question the major political philosophers have tended to shy away from. There are exceptions, of course: Plato deals with it a bit in the Republic, Hegel skips around it by turning it into dialectic growth, Machiavelli relativizes it, and Oswald Spengler naturalizes it. But even these writers only deal briefly with the subject of the death of states, to my recollection the only major philosopher who deals extensively with the topic is Augustine. Beyond him, by and large this subject has been left to poets, novelists, and historians.[1] Why is this the case? I suspect part of it is emotional—none of us like to think about the collapse of the state we live in, and all of us like to think that the good things we enjoy now will just go on forever. Even Hobbes—himself no ray of sunshine—only spends one short chapter out of the whole Leviathan reflecting on the question. But this chapter is one well worth our attention, since it highlights what Hobbes believes will be the weakness and, ultimately, the destruction of his “mortal god.”

Though nothing can be immortal which mortals make, yet if men had the use of reason they pretend to, their commonwealths might be secured at least from perishing by internal diseases. For by the nature of their institution they are designed to live as long as mankind, or as the laws of nature, or as justice itself, which gives them life. Therefore, when they come to be dissolved, not by external violence but intestine disorder, the fault is not in men as they are the matter, but as they are the makers and orderers of them. For men, as they become at last weary of irregular jostling and hewing one another, and desire with all their hearts to conform themselves into one firm and lasting edifice… [but] they cannot, without the help of a very able architect, be compiled into any other than a crazy building, such as, hardly lasting out their own time, must assuredly fall upon the heads of their posterity. (XXIX.1)

We should notice the religious language here—men “desire with all their hearts to conform themselves into one firm and lasting edifice.” Hebrews 11 and Genesis 11 both teach that we long for a city without foundations—a city that will last forever. The difference of course is where we search for this city. Hobbes settles on the Genesis 11 approach, arguing that we might succeed where the folks of Genesis 11 failed. We can get the structure right if only we have someone competent putting it together for us. Otherwise, it will just collapse within a generation or two.

What are the causes of this collapse? When we have civil architects who make mistakes or leave gaps in the foundation, what might we expect to undermine the state?

Amongst the infirmities, therefore, of a commonwealth I will reckon in the first place those that arise from an imperfect institution, and resemble the diseases of natural body which proceed from a defectuous procreation. (XXIX.2)

In other words, the first category of causes of the collapse of states is a poor founding. This, in turn, can have multiple variations. Just as there are many kinds of diseases which might undermine our physical health, so there are many kinds of imperfect foundings that might undermine the existence of the state in the long or short term. The most common, Hobbes thinks, usually takes the form of not giving the sovereign enough power, so that when the public safety must be defended using power that has been denied the sovereign this defense appears to be an unjust act—despite the fact that it is the very reason for the sovereign’s existence in the first place. This injustice then turns the people against the sovereign and to other authorities, be they foreign powers or domestic factions.

If the first category of causes of systemic collapse is something akin to natural physiological weakness, the second is similar to disease:

In the second place, I observe the diseases of a commonwealth that proceed from the poison of seditious doctrines… (XXIX.6)

As with human diseases, there are multiple kinds of public disease that might undermine the health of the state. These include (I’ve deviated from Hobbes’s ordering here, since I think some of his points can be combined without serious harm to his ideas):

1) The elevation of the individual conscience to the place of the highest authority. For all intents and purposes, this is simply bringing the condition of the state of nature into the commonwealth. (Though Hobbes admits that this is acceptable in aspects of public life where the sovereign has not formerly spoken, XXIX.6) We have all agreed to submit to a public conscience over and above our own, violating this is destructive to the state (XXIX.7).

2) Setting faith in opposition to reason. Since reason is a key tool used in the construction of the commonwealth, placing faith over it in the sphere of religion ultimately undermines its role in the state—not least because it leads us back to the first disease, that of encouraging us to obey our consciences rather than the state. The footnote suggests that Hobbes is responding to Calvin’s Institutes here, and while I think that Hobbes is probably misreading Calvin, I’m quite happy to say that he is correct to argue that Calvinism (and all genuinely Christian movements) are at the end of the day subversive to the Leviathan. Hobbes is correct to point out that so long as there are faithful Christians in the state, there will always be people who have given their allegiance to a higher Sovereign.

3) The idea of an absolute “rule of law” which the sovereign too must obey is likewise subversive to the state. Putting the sovereign under the law is to put him under whoever makes the law, which is to establish another sovereign and so by definition to undermine the commonwealth (XXIX.9).

4) The idea of an absolute right to property is likewise trying to force the sovereign to submit to a higher authority (XXIX.10).

5) The idea of separation of powers is an attack on the very existence of the sovereign,

For what is it to divide the power of a commonwealth, but to dissolve it; for powers divided mutually destroy each other. (XXIX.12)

6) Attempting to impose a copy of institutions found in foreign nations, present or past (including ancient Greece and Rome), is likewise destructive to the state. However much the English might admire the Dutch Republic, and however much young men might be inspired by Greek and Roman histories to murder tyrants in the name of freedom, and whatever ideas we find in books about freedom and authority and so on, we are simply marching toward civil war if we try to act on any of these impulses. Especially dangerous, according to Hobbes, is the confusion of what he calls “ghostly” powers and institutions with civil ones. Basically, he is suggesting that to set the institutions of religion against (or over) the institutions of the state is to divide the state into “factions” and is little more than an attempt to use men’s superstitions to gain worldly power (XXIX.15–16).

7) Poor economic policy is perhaps a lesser disease of the state, but one worth noting anyway. This can mean that the state has too little income and so cannot fight wars or execute justice, or too much such that “the treasure of the commonwealth… is gathered together in too much abundance in one or a few private men, by monopolies or by farms of the public revenues…” (XXIX.19). Hobbes offers no corrective to these, he merely notes the problems and their parallel bodily diseases (ague and pleurisy).

8) Demagogues are also a disease, in that they could lead the devotion of the people away from the legitimate sovereign. What parallel does this have in human medicine? Why, “the effects of witchcraft,” of course (XXIX.20)!

9) Immoderation at any level of the state, be it “perpetually meddling with the fundamental laws”; towns becoming too big for their britches (my phrasing, not Hobbes’s) until there are “as it were many lesser commonwealths in the bowels of a greater, like worms in the entrails of a man”; or even the whole state itself embarking upon endless international conquest, will ultimately bring down the state by turning subpowers against the sovereign (XXIX.21–22).

10) Foreign conquest dissolves the state not because the sovereign can be removed, but because once a new means of safety is available and the sovereign can no longer defend his people “the obligation of the members” of the state shifts to the new nation (XXIX.23).

If this list is even remotely accurate, it is easy to see why Hobbes insists on so powerful a sovereign—anything less and these causes of state collapse will certainly be overwhelming. Noticeably absent here as compared to other writers on the subject is the moral component. To be sure it is immoral in Hobbes’s view to resist the sovereign, but he does not discuss the idea of “moral decay” as a cause of a state’s collapse. He is concerned with the external observations of a political scientist, not the internal diagnosis of a theologian or philosopher.

[1] With that said, I am of course not an expert in all the works of every major political philosopher—and certainly even fewer of the minor ones. So corrections, emendations, and open disagreements with this blanket statement are welcome and encouraged.


Coyle Neal is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Southwest Baptist University in Bolivar, Missouri.

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